Classical Medical Terminology Can Endanger Patients

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The limited and recycled vocabulary of dead languages used in medical terminology is confusing and has the potential to cause serious consequences for patients. Melinda Lyons, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, discusses the issues in a Comment in this week's edition of The Lancet.

While the aviation industry has adopted terminology specifically to avoid confusion (e.g., "sierra" and "foxtrot" sound very different to "s" and "f"), Lyons says, "The medical education system suffers enormous pressure to deliver increasingly more in less time with no obvious reduction in medical jargon."

She adds, "Knowing what the problematic terms are, who uses them, and when, how, and why is necessary to identify solutions. The risk for adverse consequences of sound-alike terms is greatest if they are used in time-pressured situations in which there is unfamiliarity with the terms, there is little opportunity to clarify them, and there are high levels of noise and distraction. Unfamiliarity with accents or linguistic idiosyncrasies is another problem especially pertinent to multicultural, mobile workforces."

The prefixes hypo- and hyper- are an example of both look-alike and sound-alike terms that have opposite meaning and are connected with terms (hypoglycemia, hypertension) commonly used is emergency situations. Lyons says: "Confusion could have serious consequences for patients." A number of other examples are discussed in the Comment, such as intra- versus inter-, and anti- versus ante-.

Lyons concludes: "Although the global, decentralized structure of healthcare coupled with reinforced professional culture hamper the development of unambiguous terminology, the whole system, rather than just isolated terminology, must be rethought. The healthcare profession has previously poured scorn on a move away from complex classical terminology as 'dumbing down'; however, common sense should prevail. There is no justification for the continued use of vocabulary that adds ambiguous jargon to the training and day-to-day work of health professionals. For the sake of clinicians and patients alike, removal of archaic, risk-prone terms to simplify the language of medicine is a necessary step."

Source: Lancet

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